It’s been an exciting week in the world of comedy labor relations, one that thankfully appears to have a happy ending. On Friday rumors began to swirl about changes in the format of Sirius XMs Canada Laughs station. The Montreal Gazette reported that Sirius XM struck a deal to turn its Canada Laughs radio station into Just For Laughs Radio. While stations change names all the time, this was more than just rebranding. The proposed deal with Just For Laughs, the Montreal-based comedy festival that was recently bought by a partnership that includes Howie Mandel, would have lead to the death of Canadian comedians’ one reliable revenue stream: Sirius XM royalties
Under the deal Canada Laughs would have switched from playing tracks from Canadian comedy albums to tracks from Just For Laughs archives. Beyond opening the door to the station playing non-Canadian comedians, it also meant an increase in old content. Playing a JFL set from 2003 might be interesting from a historical standpoint, but how is it better for audiences than a new track from a Canadian voice?
Despite Just for Laughs and Sirius XM announcing the change won’t happen until the Spring, listeners were already noticing a difference. One Twitter user counted just 22 minutes of Canadian material over an entire hour of listening to Canada Laughs.
The response from the Canadian comedy industry was immediate and furious. For over a decade Canada Laughs has been a dedicated source for Canadian comedy across North America, and a major source of revenue for Canadian comics. Because Canada Laughs only plays Canadian comedians, the station provided a way to earn a living for comics outside the club system in the Great White North.
Due to the sudden wave of overwhelming opposition from within the Canadian comedy industry, Sirius and JFL changed their plans on Wednesday evening. In a press release, the companies announced the new station will be called Just For Laughs Canada and will feature 100 percent Canadian content. Canadian artists will also be eligible for the same royalties as they were under the previous channel.
Brue Hills, President of Just For Laughs, used the release to apologize to Canadian comics, stating, “We’ve listened carefully to the concerns of Canadian artists and regret the stress we have caused the comedy community. We are invested in the growth of Canada’s comedy industry and are working to include even more Canadian talent in all our initiatives. To that end, we will continue to engage directly with the industry and work with CASC [Canadian Association of Stand-up Comedians] to strengthen and advance Canadian comedy.”
To understand why the change caused such outrage in the first place, it’s important to understand the struggles of Canadian comedians. Unlike the United States, where even small towns can have year-round comedy clubs, there are fewer opportunities in Canada.
According to comedian Michelle Shaughnessy, clubs in Canada are different. “Clubs can be an avenue for some, but for example, in the summer a lot of clubs go from four or five shows a week to two,” she explained over email. “There aren’t that many here to sustain a living… and you can really only headline them each once a year.” It’s this lack of opportunity that made Canada Laughs so important. According to Shaughnessy, “even newer comedians who were not necessarily headlining yet could have some great tracks in rotation and get some exposure and some money.”
That money is also important to the survival of Canadians in other countries. Steph Tolev, a three-time JFL performer currently living in Los Angeles, depends on her Canada Laughs royalties to get by. “I pay my full rent off of my plays, on top of me having two other part-time jobs out here,” she says.
Beyond her current bills, the revenue was invaluable to coming to the United States in the first place. According to Tolev, “it helped me pay for my green card. That was $15,000 once it was all said and done.” In a chaotic industry, Canada Laughs helped provide a safety net. “Knowing that every month I can pay my rent keeps my spirits up.” When the news of Sirius and JFL’s change in position broke Tolev was one of the first to Tweet about it.
While the Canadian government offers grants for artists, stand-up comedy isn’t officially recognized as an art form. If a comedian wishes to get government funding, they must prove they meet the criteria for a theatre artists profile, including formal training. Just For Laughs, on the other hand, as an organization that promotes the performing arts, is eligible for millions of dollars in government money.
The exposure from Sirius XM allows Canadian comedians who can’t afford the expensive process of getting a green card to build an audience outside their home country. We asked Tolev about the process of working legally in America and if Laughs Canada helped. “In order to get a green card you have to prove you’re an amazing talent,” she explained. “I had two albums getting played when I applied for mine which I am sure helped me a lot.”
Comics who aren’t planning on leaving the country for work would have felt the sting in losing their ability to build a bigger fanbase. “I often get messages through my website or fan page from someone in Ohio or Texas saying they heard my bit while driving to work,” says Michelle Shaughnessy. “It was amazing. These are people who wouldn’t have ever been exposed to us before.”
It’s a good thing Sirius XM and Just For Laughs have listened to the response from the Canadian comedy industry. But this situation demonstrates how important collective action is when resolving industry disputes. Comedians are solitary artists, often without the power to negotiate until they have representation with ties to the industry. In Canada, there’s actually an advocacy group for comedians, the Canadian Association of Stand-Up Comedians, which was in communication with JFL and Sirius XM this week.
Comedians are used to working for free and rolling with every punch thrown their way. In an industry where there’s always someone willing to work for free, it’s hard to turn down opportunities when they arise. Before they ever get paid by a club, comedians are already rich in exposure, but exposure doesn’t pay the bills.
Creating a comedy advocacy group in the United States like the one in Canada would be a daunting task. But as artists are expected to do more to promote their careers by themselves before the industry takes note, the idea of an organization that can help fight for minimum industry standards becomes more attractive. At a minimum, it would make collective action easier for US comics.
Some things seem basic. Clubs should pay performers when they’re charging tickets. Services like YouTube should be transparent in how changes in their algorithms impact performers ability to make a living. Festivals should help house performers they ask to travel. Most importantly, comedians shouldn’t be left to negotiate these issues one at a time in private. In less than a week the Canadian comedy industry rose up to defeat a change that would hurt its members. Their collective action should be an inspiration to mistreated comedians everywhere.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.